Slugfest in Vegas sets record as most-watched Democratic primary debate ever

Democratic presidential candidates Mike Bloomberg, left, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders in Wednesday's debate, which drew 19.7 million viewers for NBC and MSNBC.
(John Locher / Associated Press)

The arrival of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg gave a major viewership boost to NBC’s telecast of the Democratic primary debate Wednesday.

The candidate showdown ahead of Saturday’s Nevada caucus averaged 19.7 million viewers across NBC and cable network MSNBC, the largest audience ever for a primary debate, according to Nielsen data. The number is nearly 4 million less than the 23.6 million viewers who tuned in for ABC’s telecast of the Oscars on Feb. 9, which is typically the most-watched non-sports program of the year.

NBC topped the previous high for a Democratic debate, when the second round of the first 2020 candidate meeting on June 27 drew a record-setting 18.1 million viewers.

The ninth 2020 primary debate overall was the first to include Bloomberg, who has flooded the airwaves with hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of TV commercial buys that have catapulted him into the upper tier of the polls.


Bloomberg spent much of the two-hour proceedings being pummeled by Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, former Vice President Joe Biden, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.

Viewers clearly anticipated a donnybrook. The record-sitting lift in audience comes after viewing levels for the debates had been drifting downward in recent months. The most recent event, presented Feb. 7 on ABC, was watched by 7.86 million viewers.

Wednesday’s event at the Paris Hotel in Las Vegas also averaged 417,000 viewer streams across several digital platforms including NBC News Now, a free live-streaming service launched last year.

The debate was moderated by Lester Holt, anchor of “NBC Nightly News” and “Dateline NBC”; Chuck Todd, moderator of “Meet the Press” and NBC News political director; Hallie Jackson, NBC News chief White House correspondent and host of “MSNBC Live”; Vanessa Hauc, senior correspondent at Noticias Telemundo; and Jon Ralston of the Nevada Independent.

The candidates meet for their next debate on Feb. 25 in Charleston, S.C. It will air on CBS.